Berlioz: Te Deum, Opus 22

Louis-Hector Berlioz was born December 11, 1803, in La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, France, and died March 8, 1869, in Paris. He may have begun work on his Te Deum in the autumn of 1848 but carried out most of the composition in 1849, completing it that August. He continued to revise the piece through the time of its premiere. The Te Deum was first performed on April 30, 1855, at the Church of Saint-Eustache in Paris; on that occasion, Berlioz conducted an assemblage of 900 or 950 performers. When it was published, in 1855, the work carried a dedication “to His Royal Highness Prince Albert.” The only previous San Francisco Symphony performances were given in December 1973. Seiji Ozawa conducted, with tenor Seth McCoy, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, and the San Francisco Boys Chorus. The score calls for four flutes, four oboes, four clarinets, four bassoons, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, two tubas, timpani, cymbals (four or five pairs), bass drum, organ, and strings, plus three choruses (two comprising sopranos, tenors, and basses; third comprising sopranos and contraltos, preferably children) and, in the “Te ergo” section, a tenor soloist. (The Praeludium and Marche pour la présentation des drapeaux are omitted in these concerts, as they are in all performances that are not military performances.) Performance time: about forty-five minutes.

Many of Hector Berlioz’s major works crept into being by fits and starts over many years. Their histories document episodes of hope and of heartbreak, of dynamism and of exhaustion, of unrealistic expectation and of grudging compromise. His career was marked by flares of genius but also by inspirations that led to blind alleys and dead ends. Works envisioned one way could morph into something quite different, often adapting to the practicalities of a concert world that acknowledged Berlioz’s brilliance while at the same time considering him extremely annoying and possibly mad as a hatter.

His Te Deum is a characteristic example. Its roots seem to reach back to the early 1830s, only a couple of years after he unleashed his Symphonie fantastique, which earned Rossini’s witticism “What a good thing it isn’t music” and Schumann’s assessment that the man who composed such a piece could be judged a “terror to the Philistines.” At that time, Berlioz was swept up in the idea of composing a work born of Napoleonic sentiments, something immense—a military symphony, perhaps—that might mimic the grandiose musical productions that had stirred the public in the early years of the French Republic. He might take as a model the vast pieces that Jean-François Le Sueur, later his composition teacher at the Paris Conservatory, had written to present in huge, resonant buildings—perhaps his Chant du 1er vendémiaire an IX, which Napoléon had greatly admired when it was performed in 1800 by four orchestras and four choruses distributed within the Hôtel des Invalides. Berlioz envisioned a seven-movement Fête musicale funèbre à la mémoire des hommes illustres de France (“Funerary Musical Celebration in Memory of Illustrious Men of France”), but he never brought it to fruition. In 1835, he wrote to his sister Adèle, “I can find absolutely no way of continuing work on a vast musical composition which I’ve begun and of which I have high hopes.” Scholars suspect that whatever work Berlioz had carried out was later refashioned into various extant pieces, including Le cinq mai (a Napoleonic cantata from 1835), the Grande messe des morts (a.k.a. Requiem, 1837), the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale (1840), and, finally, the Te Deum (1848-49).

The ecclesiastical Te Deum is also sometimes known as the Ambrosian Hymn because it was said to have been spontaneously composed and recited in alternation by Saints Ambrose and Augustine when the former baptized the latter in the year 387. The Te Deum figures in the Roman Catholic liturgy in the Office of Readings (formerly known as Matins), but non-monastic types through history have been more likely to encounter it as a hymn employed at some very festive occasion, such as the consecration of a church official, a royal coronation, or the celebration of a military victory. No specific event seems to have goaded Berlioz to embark on his Te Deum. The bellicose atmosphere that engulfed Europe in 1848 might seem a logical trigger, but already in 1846 a catalogue of Berlioz’s works had appeared, listing a Napoleonic piece for two choruses and large orchestra as an unpublished composition. Surely it was also an un-composed composition at that point, but one Berlioz had firmly enough in mind to bear publicizing in that way.

Although Berlioz worked on his Te Deum for the better part of a year, mostly in 1849, he would scarcely mention the piece in his extensive Memoirs. Nothing came of a plan to premiere it in 1852, at the ceremony elevating Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte as Emperor Napoléon III, nor was it performed, as Berlioz hoped it would be, at Napoléon III’s wedding.

Prospects for the Te Deum improved when Napoléon III decided that a world’s fair should be mounted in Paris from May through October 1855. Berlioz and a consortium of co-producers decided to organize a concert for the eve of the opening at the Church of Saint-Eustache. A new organ had recently been installed there, and it seemed reasonable that attendees at the Exposition would be attracted to hearing it—an organ being, after all, a wonder of engineering. The score of the Te Deum was at the ready.

The organ would play a prominent part; the very opening measures would spotlight it alternating chords with an orchestra situated at the opposite end of the nave. Two equally constituted choirs would add further spatial drama, but by this time Berlioz’s conception had grown to include a children’s choir—or, as he put it in his Memoirs, “a third, very large choir which sings in unison and represents the people adding their voice from time to time to the great ceremony of sacred music.” The impetus for this expansion was apparently a concert he had heard in 1851 at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. He wrote to his sister Adèle about “the amazing effect of a choir of six and a half thousand children which I heard there. I’ve never seen or heard anything so moving in its immense grandeur as this mass of poor children singing, arranged in colossal tiers.” Berlioz could not rival that for his premiere, but he amassed impressive forces nonetheless: 900 or 950 singers and instrumentalists (accounts differ), all responding to the flick of his baton. It was the only performance of the complete piece to take place in the composer’s lifetime. He did, however, include the “Tibi omnes” movement in a monster concert he directed for the awards ceremony when the Exposition closed. On that occasion he led 1,500 performers, and he kept everyone together by using an electric metronome, invented for the occasion, via which the tempo he tapped with his left hand was transmitted to five assistant conductors stationed around the hall.

No sooner was the premiere over than Berlioz dashed off a note to Franz Liszt: “I send you three lines to say that today the Te Deum was given the most magnificently accurate performance. It was colossal, Babylonian, Ninevite. The large church was full. Not one mistake, not one hesitation. . . . I promise you, it’s a formidable work, the Judex goes beyond any of the enormities I’ve been guilty of so far. . . . Yes, [my] Requiem has a brother, a brother who has come into the world with teeth, like Richard III (minus the hump); and I tell you, today he bit the audience by the heart.”

Berlioz distributes his setting among six movements, which he identifies as hymns, prayers, or (in the case of the finale) both. He also wrote two strictly orchestral movements, neither of which is performed in this concert. Of these, he cut the Praeludium to the “Dignare, Domine” section before the Saint-Eustache premiere, advised that it should never be used in performances that did not have some direct military connection, and omitted it from the published score. The other is a concluding “March for the Presentation of the Colors,” which, like the Praeludium, is usually cut from modern performances, although Berlioz did employ it at the premiere and include it in the published score.  

Berlioz partly follows the Latin text of the liturgical Te Deum and partly re-orders the standard verbiage, as if creating his own libretto to follow the dramatic arc he desires. Following the antiphonal introduction for organ vs. orchestra, the opening “Te Deum laudamus” unrolls as a dense choral fugue, strongly accented in its rhythms, with the two mixed choirs yielding a grand six-part texture and the children’s chorus entering with a simpler line that evokes plainchant. At the end, a surprising modulation from F major to remote B major smoothes the transition to “Tibi omnes,” with its incense-tinged organ introduction returning at the end (recast for orchestra) to frame the entire movement. The orchestral writing brims with unanticipated events—repetitive undulations from the winds, pizzicato arpeggios from the strings, a striking countermelody from the bassoons and cellos—and at the words “Sanctus Deus Sabaoth” the choruses hover in angelic wonder.

“Dignare, Domine” again spotlights the organ at its opening and proceeds to a reverential choral movement. Long pedal tones, often extending ten measures or more, provide a foundation: first a low D, then rising by thirds to an extended F, A, C, E-flat, and thence climbing back down through a similar pattern in reverse—not an orthodox principle of tonal organization, but nobody ever accused Berlioz of being orthodox. The two mixed choirs duplicate each other’s lines at the outset of “Christe, Rex gloriae,” an uncharacteristic texture in this piece but one that furnishes monumental power at this majestic moment. The roof, having been raised for this peroration to the King of Glory, settles back down for “Te ergo quaesumus,” where the tenor’s solo aria, his only activity in this entire Te Deum, has an Italianate ring to it, maybe suggesting an unusually chromatic aria from a late Rossini opera. In fact, Berlioz lifted this music from the “Agnus Dei” of a Messe solennelle he had written in 1824, possibly the earliest piece in which we glimpse the composer’s distinct fingerprint.

There remains the “Judex crederis,” the longest section of this Te Deum, a tempestuous, even terrifying movement whose themes grow entirely out of the material presented at the outset by the organ and swell to a grandiose vision of the Day of Judgment and, at “Salvum fac populum tuum,” an orchestral simulacrum of tolling bells. The opening fugato employs a curious subject that ends a semitone higher than it begins. As a result, successive entries are each pumped up by a half-step. A classical contrapuntalist would consider all this imaginative to the point of heresy, but it is quite the sort of thing that would have interested Antonín Reicha, Berlioz’s counterpoint teacher, whose penchant for experimentalism found fertile soil in his gifted student. “His respect for tradition stopped well short of idolatry,” Berlioz once observed, a remark he might just as easily have aimed at his own Te Deum, which respects the traditions of its genre, but not too much.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: John Nelson conducting the Orchestre de Paris, Orchestre de Paris Chorus, Children’s Choir of the European Union, Maîtrise d’Antony, tenor Roberto Alagna, and organist Marie-Claire Alain (Virgin Classics)  |  Colin Davis conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle, Dresden Singakademie, various Dresden children’s choruses, tenor Stuart Neill, and organist Hans-Dieter Schöne (Profil)  |  Claudio Abbado conducting the European Community Youth Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, London Philharmonic Choir, Wooburn Singers, a plethora of youth choirs, tenor Francisco Araiza, and organist Martin Haselböck (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with tenor John Aler (Telarc)

Reading: Berlioz, by David Cairns (University of California Press; a two-volume study, of which the second, Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness, covers the period of the Te Deum)  |  Berlioz, by D. Kern Holoman (Harvard University Press)  |  Selected Letters of Berlioz, edited by Hugh Macdonald, translated by Roger Nichols (Faber and Faber)  |  The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, translated and edited by David Cairns (Cardinal/Victor Gollancz)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Berlioz, edited by Peter Bloom (Cambridge University Press)  |  The Music of Berlioz, by A.E. F. Dickinson (St. Martin’s Press)  |  Berlioz and the Romantic Century, by Jacques Barzun (Columbia University Press)

DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in Berlioz and the Symphonie fantastique, part of Keeping Score (SFS Media). Also available at